My foot slipped in the red clay, slick from the morning rain. I looked down at my hands, now planted in the mud from catching my fall. I felt a bead of sweat drip off my forehead. The humidity was as thick as coconut curry. Glancing up again I could see our destination through the treetops—an emerald mountain peak with slender golden pillars poking out through the forest from the Buddhist temple below like thin telephone poles upholding a cellular connection with the world beyond.
Hiking Doi Suthep was an old tradition for people in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and for visitors from all around the country who would come to pay their respects at the sacred Buddhist site. Though still a sacred hike, the route today is less tranquil than it once was—in the last few decades, foot traffic on the route has exploded from global tourism. The hike from the base takes a few hours and traverses through moist Thai forests with towering trees, rocky river outcroppings and waterfalls, and a small, simple village occupied exclusively by monks and peacocks. At the top of the hike sits an impressive temple with stone patios looking out over Chiang Mai, countless gongs to signal time for meditation, and a golden plated chedi, or central tower, around which people walk, barefoot, making small offerings of money and food along the way. Legend has it that the temple on top was built in the early 700s, with the help of elephants, when Chiang Mai was first established.
It was my first week in Thailand, where I would spend the next five months studying ecology and development, and it was the first of many sacred sites I would visit. At temples, the sacred was obvious. Walking into the temple grounds of any of Chiang Mai’s four hundred plus places of meditation, one was smacked in the face with golden statues, prayer halls, and incenses. Over the next five months I slowly came to realize that the distinction between the sacred and the commonplace in Thailand was often blurred, and sacredness was often in unexpected places. A spirit house outside in the small garden. A prayer amulet hanging from the taxi’s rearview mirror. An offering of fruit and incense set along the highway for ancestral remembrance and a stray dog’s empty stomach.
Along the path to Doi Suthep orange robes stood out in the shaded forest understory, tied to the trunks of various trees, almost glowing. At first only a handful wrapped the trunks of a few scattered trees, but as we hiked the robes increased until every trunk seemed to be tied in orange, red, and saffron, like a forest of trees wrapped as Christmas presents. Robes, our instructor pointed out, signified trees that were to be preserved and protected from logging. Buddhist monks tied the robes to the trees and whispered prayers, and the color of the robes matched the color of the monk who tied it. Months later, I learned that a tree marked with a robe was not just a special tree chosen by a monk—these trees were monks. The act of tying a robe to a tree gave the tree monk status, requiring others to treat the tree as one would treat a monk, with bowing reverence.
Two years after studying in Thailand, I returned to the land of ancient city walls and cheap fried rice to visit my host family and a few friends that were living there. We ate our favorite noodles, soups, and curries; we visited our old professors; and we took taxis around town to visit temples and a few of our favorite bars. After staying with a friend who lived south of town, I took a crowded taxi back to Chiang Mai along a historic stretch of road—the King’s Highway. Hanging off the back of a crowded pick-up truck taxi, I noticed orange robes tied to the bases of the massive trees along the road. Despite the dust caked to everything that straddled the road, the saffron robes still seemed to glow. Above our heads, the trees waved their branches in the wind and birds constructed nests in the crooks of the branches.